Story of Seasons, the most recent localized release of the Harvest Moon series as envisioned by Marvelous Entertainment, is a game that hooked me in for a long while. I wouldn’t exactly call this game and the other games in the series progressive, and I certainly don’t purchase it for any other reason than fun farming times. Yet, for a series that seems to try its best to stay away from anything too, perhaps, “controversial”, I find it interesting that in SoS they reintroduced a character type that could be seen as stereotypical and offensive, at least from my Western perspective. While the characters of Animal Parade’s Julius and SoS’s Marian present a potential conversation about non-binary gender identity and how they interact with the small, rural farming town they’re a part of, this is something that is never exactly discussed. Certainly, this can be seen as a positive thing–that no one treats them any differently because of how they choose to express themselves. In some ways, that’s probably even true, but much of the conflict here is simply untranslatable to mass marketable Western audiences, and in this case, that may be okay.
Speaking as someone who admittedly doesn’t know all the nuances of gender identity and LGBTQ+ life in Japan, there will be some things I mess up on. As such, take my analysis with a grain of salt. If you, yourself, have more experience with these topics, please feel free to chime in!
Both Julius and Marian are presented as okama type characters. Okama is a slang term, one that can absolutely be derogatory, which is used for men who dress and act in a particularly effeminate way. As such, it’s entirely possible that crossdressers, trans women, gay men, and other non-binary identities could fit under this umbrella term. While okama aren’t exiled from Japanese culture the way that various LGBTQ+ people are exiled in America, the difference seems to be in how seriously the identity is taken. The internalization of sexuality and gender in Japan appears to be focused less on developing an individual identity for yourself, and more on figuring out how to work within the already present social constructs, so as to not cause a scene. Presenting in a non-binary manner, or simply being gay, isn’t seen as heretical in Japan as it is in some places in the United States, but this goes along with the idea that said presentation is a “phase” or it’s something that is referred to as a hobby. While any anime fan knows that there’s a huge business in creating gay media, this media doesn’t reflect the actual interests of the gay community and is overall unrelatable to said gay community. In fact, according to Mark McLelland in his study Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, he comments that “[a]lthough Japan does have extensive gay media, they reflect the general tendency in Japanese society to treat sexuality as a form of entertainment” which leads society as a whole to “either ridicule them or idealize them”. As such, the identity of the okama is typically used for comedy.
This last part is especially apparent in Marian’s character. Marian is the town’s doctor; however, unlike many of the previous doctors in the Harvest Moon series, he’s emotional and flamboyant. Many of his dialogue pictures are of exaggerated expressions, and he also speaks often about looking good, keeping beautiful, and love. Compared to the other villagers, it becomes clear that he’s supposed to provide some sense of comedic relief next to the typical more serious dialogue of the other villagers. Because in America we don’t have this stereotype of the okama, I found myself much more inclined to view Marian as a trans woman. Arguably, we do have a multitude of stereotypes for gay men, but since none of them really address ultra-feminine looks outside of drag queens, it seemed much easier to just see Marian as now living as a woman who was obsessed with love. In fact, I remember feeling that another character, Klaus, was being rude and insensitive by referring to Marian with male pronouns—that somehow despite them being friends since they were young, Klaus was unwilling to accept that Marian was now living as a woman.
Julius, I find, is less about this comedic effect, and more about reinforcing the notion that okama aren’t actually gay (Marian avoids this by mentioning his boyfriend, whom he cooks for). Much like Marian, Julius is into fashion; however, his clothes are much less stereotypically feminine than Marian’s. Yet, when speaking with him, Julius’s liberal usage of hearts, stars, and music notes in his dialogue give the immediate sense that he may not be entirely straight. This is about as far as it goes in interpretation for a Western audience. In the Japanese version, though, when watching an event between him and Candace (who Julius can marry instead of the player) he brings up the idea that Candace may not like him because she thinks he’s an okama, which he immediately denies that he is. In the Western version, instead Julius complains that Candace doesn’t like him because of his height, which isn’t a comparable situation at all. Although thinking about it, I’m not sure what the localization team should have put in instead. A Western audience probably wouldn’t have really seen anything too bizarre about Julius’s clothing choices (outside of them being really out of place in this rural town), and they certainly wouldn’t have been interpreted as “feminine”, or not overtly so, thus anything having to do with crossdressing would be out. The closest thing would be saying “I’m not gay”, but that wouldn’t equate either, since most okama do not consider themselves gay, or at least not gay as a Westerner would interpret it.
Harvest Moon’s representation of feminine-presenting men feels like a double-edged sword. While for Japanese audiences they could provide some sort of comfort that there is still a chance to find love and lead a successful life while embracing their self-expression, the characters also still don’t seem to offer much representation in terms of non-straight, non-conforming identities, forcing the characters to still fit into society’s boxes while still holding up the “okama as comedy” trope. For Western audiences, the characters could be embraced as characters who dress outside of the binary and embrace their talents, finding their own success among their individuality, but they could also be seen as a way to skirt around actual LGBTQ+ representation in favor of something more “kid friendly”.
As I said earlier, I wouldn’t hail Harvest Moon as a diverse game series, and I don’t expect this to change in the near future. However, I do feel that a younger Western audience could potentially have their own clothing choices validated through characters like these. Much like Link being able to wear dresses in Triforce Heroes, presenting somewhat less binary-restricting clothing as normalized and complimented in some way (no one denies how stylish Marian and Julius are) could lead to kids feeling less pressure to look any one way based on a presumed gender identity. Even if it’s not perfect representation, or intentional representation, it’s still planted in the ground as a seed. Maybe someday, the series will take it upon itself to let that seed sprout.